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Columbia County declares emergency as floods soak region

One person dead after high water takes on Clatskanie

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - St. Helens resident Jeremy Gibson stands outside his home on Melvin Avenue pointing to an area where he first saw water gushing on Tuesday night. Gibson said he spent over an hour with fire crews and his friend, Steve Houben, propping sand bags in front of his garage and doorway.Officials in Columbia County declared a state of emergency Tuesday, as heavy rains flooded local roads and buildings, and left at least one person dead Wednesday.

Emergency responders from the Scappoose Fire District were dispatched Wednesday to Lost Creek Road in Clatskanie around 1:40 p.m., where a woman was trapped in a SUV on the heavily flooded road.

The woman who drowned was identified as Penny Forrest, 72, of Clatskanie. She was a passenger in a 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee being driven by Richard Forrest, 82, also of Clatskanie. Richard Forrest was able to escape from the submerged vehicle.

Oregon State Police reported that Richard Forrest drove around a "road closed" barricade at Lost Creek Road and Highway 30 when the Jeep stalled in an area of high water, becoming submerged.

Division Chief Jeff Pricher with the Scappoose Fire District said his three-person crew arrived, only to search for an SUV with a body trapped inside.

"When we first got on scene, we basically saw the road end in water," Pricher said. "We were told there was a vehicle out there and they didn't know where. We found it by using our paddles."

Pricher's crew assisted Clatskanie firefighters and Oregon State Police as the SUV was secured with cables to a tow truck.

NICOLE THILL - McCormick Park in St. Helens is under water Wednesday afternoon, after days of heavy rains in Columbia County. County officials declared a state of emergency late Tuesday.Prior to Wednesday's fatal swift water incident, the Columbia County Board of Commissioners took emergency action Tuesday night requesting Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to declare a state of emergency to provide supplemental disaster relief to the county, as well as to Vernonia and Rainier.

The cities of Vernonia, Rainier, St. Helens and Clatskanie all declared a state of emergency by Wednesday morning, Dec. 9. Portions of Highway 30 near Rainier were closed between mileposts 38 and 44 for several days after a landslide blocked the road.

A landslide occurred Tuesday just east of the St. Johns Bridge, resulting in a traffic snarl for evening commuters travelling Highway 30. Closures of I-5 near Woodland, Wash., also diverted heavy traffic onto Highway 30 Thursday morning, causing "dangerous congestion," according to Columbia County Emergency Management. Additionally, a gas leak resulted in a late-morning closure of Highway 30 Thursday, with traffic being detoured onto Bridge Avenue, according to a release from the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Janet Wright, a spokeswoman for Columbia County, said damage estimates associated with the series of storms had not been calculated as of Thursday morning.

COURTNEY VAUGHN - A sign warning of high water alerts drivers in St. Helens Wednesday afternoon. Floods caused county officials to declare a state of emergency."We really don't know completely what the damages are going to be right now because the event is progressing. It's continuing,” Wright said.

During storms on Tuesday, Dec. 8, Columbia River Fire and Rescue responded to 23 calls of people in St. Helens whose homes had flooded. At least three families were displaced in various areas of St. Helens on Tuesday night, according to CRFR Chief Jay Tappan. Reports of severe flooding were also reported at the Easy2Wash car wash near Deer Island Road and near The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Sykes road, among other residential areas of St. Helens.

With unrelenting rain, St. Helens Public Works Operations Manager Neal Sheppeard said the storm drainage systems simply became overwhelmed during the week. An overflow of the sewer system near 14th Street on Monday, Dec. 7, resulted in more than 70,000 gallons of water to be pumped into the city's storm drain system, which discharges to the Columbia River. A second overflow occurred in the same area Tuesday night, but gallon estimates hadn't been calculated yet.

All overflows are reported to the Department of Environmental Quality.

The banks of Milton Creek also overflowed Wednesday night, causing severe flooding at the end of Melvin Avenue and affecting at least four homes at the end of a cul-de-sac. The creek in McCormick Park also reached flood stage, with its waters reaching sufficient heights to partially or fully submerge picnic tables and park benches as of Wednesday morning.